Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 34


Williams: Music from Angela's Ashes
Koussevitzky Music Shed, August 5, 2000

Boston Pops Orchestra
John Williams, conductor
Frank McCourt, narrator
Martha Babcock, cello
Ann Hobson Pilot, harp

Release: 07/23/2012  


Available for purchase starting July 24, 2012 8:30 AM


Background on the Music

Tanglewood 75 Archival Program Cover A modest autobiography of childhood by a 66-year-old retired New York schoolteacher made Frank McCourt an overnight celebrity in 1996. Angela's Ashes won the Pulitzer Prize and made McCourt a millionaire - a happy ending for a story that began in abject poverty in Limerick, Ireland.

The book was exceedingly popular and a bit controversial as well. Citizens of Limerick City didn't care for it - although even today there are bus tours of the Angela's Ashes sites. A film of Angela's Ashes dutifully followed in 1999; it disappointed nearly everybody, and the box office receipts didn't add up to much more than half of what it cost to make it.

But the score that John Williams wrote for his 84th film has survived the movie.

Williams, a Juilliard-trained pianist, jazz musician, and arranger, made the transition into composing through writing for television - Bachelor Father, M Squad, Gilligan's Island, Checkmate, Wagon Train, and many more. An obscure 1958 film called Daddy-O marked his entrance into the movie business, and since then he has written the scores for more than 100 movies, including some of the most famous and popular productions of the last half-century. Nobody needs to see the list at this point, although it should be pointed out that when you introduce Williams as the composer of Gidget Goes Hawaiian he will not be embarrassed, and will instead tell you about his choice of instrumentation. Even people who have never heard of John Williams - and there can't be very many - carry some of his music in their heads as they go about their daily activities; his music may have been written for movie soundtracks but it has moved onto the soundtrack of our lives. Williams has written in many styles for movies in many genres, but most of us think of him as a composer of adventure (Indiana Jones, Superman), childhood joy (E. T.), magic (the Harry Potter films), and heroic endeavor (the six Star Wars films). Whatever he is writing, he believes in it, which is why listeners believe in it too.

In addition to his film music, Williams has composed extensively for the concert hall - a symphony, and 15 concertos for various orchestral instruments, some of them written for his friends in the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops. There is also a fair amount of ceremonial music for great public occasions like the restoration of the Statue of Liberty, the Olympics, and the inauguration of President Barak Obama. In 1975, he even wrote a musical for the London stage, Thomas and the King, based on the conflict between Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Henry II in the 12th century.

A new direction for Williams began in 1980 when he succeeded Arthur Fiedler as the conductor of the Boston Pops, a position he held until 1993, when the Boston Symphony, the parent organization, gratefully named him Laureate Conductor of the Pops. He has continued to appear with the Pops annually ever since. This new job made him a public figure and an immensely popular one; his concerts in Symphony Hall invariably sell out and his concerts at Tanglewood draw record crowds.  He took the job, he said at the time, to win recognition for film music and all composers for film - not just himself - and in that aim he has been brilliantly successful.

Most Williams programs include music written for films. In addition to the inevitable pieces of his own from Star Wars, E.T., Indiana Jones, Jaws, Harry Potter and so forth, he often presents excerpts from less familiar scores he is particularly fond of like Jane Eyre or The Reivers. He also often pays homage to such precursors as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, David Raksin, Maurice Jarre, Henry Mancini, and his friend and mentor Bernard Herrmann.

Eventually these tributes coalesced into "Film Night at Tanglewood."  The first of these was a one-off concert in 1997, and this download from 2000 documents the start of what has since become one of Tanglewood's most popular annual attractions. Often Williams brings one of his Hollywood friends for an onstage chat - Stanley Donen, the legendary director of MGM musicals (Singin' In The Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brother) and Steven Spielberg have both come along twice. He has led tributes to directors Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, to Warner Bros. Studios, and to actresses Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn. The highlight always comes when Williams, in an enviable but understated display of podium virtuosity leads the Pops in a live accompaniment perfectly synchronized to famous film sequences projected on screens inside the Koussevitzky Music Shed and placed around the roof so that the audiences on the lawn can see them too.  When Seiji Ozawa was the BSO music director, he would watch this apparently effortless feat with open-mouthed astonishment.

Sometimes there is an "educational" component - Williams projects an action sequence from an Indiana Jones film without music, and then repeats it with the music, demonstrating how the ear tells the eye what to notice, the mind what to think, the heart what to feel. But Williams never lets education interfere with pure enjoyment, and now many American orchestras have "film nights" modeled on the ones Williams created for the Pops.

Williams has done a lot for the Pops and the Boston Symphony, and he is mindful of what the orchestras have done for him. The BSO and the Pops have helped him in his mission to win recognition for film music - there is no need to "legitimize" it any more - and they have also brought many musicians into his orbit, ranging from Yo-Yo Ma to James Taylor; the Pops has done some soundtrack work with Williams, and he has used BSO and Pops players in some of his Hollywood recordings. Consequently, Williams has been a major donor to the BSO and Tanglewood; he has taught at the Tanglewood Music Center; last year he commissioned Penelope Jencks's bust of Aaron Copland that now stands in the Copland Bower on the Tanglewood grounds. Tanglewood and the Berkshires are among his favorite places, and every summer he spends a month or two nearby, usually quietly working on his current film project.

The year after Angela's Ashes was released, Williams conducted music from the score with the Pops in Boston and at Tanglewood. Frank McCourt served as narrator, reading from his own book - as he did on one CD version of the soundtrack music. Many fans of Williams's music found McCourt's narration on the CD distracting - it was hard to hear the music - but the writer's physical presence at the concert was rewarding, and he read his own text extremely well; one heard the music in his words. And while the film was excessively gloomy, McCourt's captivating lilt spelled "survival" in even the most tragic episodes.

The music does too. The themes ache, but they also find musical expression for human warmth, compassion, resilience, and even humor. The opening is a kind of embracing lullaby that begins with a rocking accompaniment on the solo piano (played by Williams himself on this occasion) before the solo cello takes it up. Pops principal cello and BSO assistant principal Martha Babcock has collaborated with Williams on many occasions. His favorite piece of music is Elgar's Cello Concerto, and Babcock is one of his favorite interpreters of it; they have collaborated on some memorable performances. There are also important parts for flute and oboe, and an extended solo for harp, "The Lanes of Limerick," played by Ann Hobson Pilot. For her performance the lights in the Koussevitzky Music Shed were dimmed, but it wasn't really necessary; her playing was spellbinding enough.

Richard Dyer


"While the film [of Angela's Ashes] has had a decidedly mixed-to-negative critical and popular reaction, the music by [John] Williams is among his most memorable non-Spielberg creations. With a piano introduction by Williams and an extended solo impeccably performed by veteran BSO and Pops principal harpist Ann Hobson Pilot, the score also offers extended passages for solo cello originally composed for Yo-Yo Ma. On this occasion, Pops principal cellist Martha Babcock (BSO assistant principal) offered a heartfelt, deeply soulful rendition that could scarcely be bettered. The dapper and distinguished-looking McCourt . . . delivered extended narration (including some material jettisoned from the film) with a rolling Irish brogue that resounded through the Shed like the voice of old Ireland itself. . .The Williams score, with its soaring lyricism and evocative melodic sweep, well deserved its Oscar nomination and should have a life of its own at concerts such as this one."
-Clarence Fanto, Berkshire Eagle